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Buddy up for a bountiful harvest: Intercropping in your veggie garden

  • Written by Molbak's
Want to get more homegrown goodness out of your veggie garden? Try intercropping. Intercropping is the practice of growing two or more crops together. Done right, this botanical "buddy system" helps plants thrive, allows you to plant more, reduces the need for pesticides and limits the spread of diseases.

Intercropping takes a little planning and experimentation, but it’s all part of the fun. Here are a few tips to help you devise your garden layout so you can maximize cooperation between plants, decrease competition, and make the best use of every inch of garden space.

Maximize space: To avoid overcrowding and competition for nutrients, you’ll want to pair vegetables with differing root sizes that feed at different root depths. For example, pair beets and turnips that take up a lot of space with carrots and radishes that require much less.

Consider space requirements above ground, too. Large-leafed cabbage takes up a lot more room than broccoli, which has smaller leaves and grows higher. These are a good intercropping pair. Grow anything that can climb, such as tomatoes, cucumbers, beans and peas, on stakes or trellises to save space and provide wind and sun shelter to shade-loving ground crops such as lettuce, cilantro and parsley.

Lighten up: Delicate or light-sensitive plants like beans, beets, chard, leeks, peas, radishes, and turnips love the protection of being overshadowed by large-leafed sun lovers like rhubarb and zucchini. Alternate rows of narrow-leafed plants like leeks, shallots, garlic and onions between leafy vegetables so that there’s plenty of sun for all. You can also use taller plants that don’t have large leaves, such as corn, to provide filtered sun for melons, squash, pumpkins and cucumbers.

Lend support: Some plants work well together because they offer structural support for one another. For example, a dense tangle of melon, squash, pumpkin or cucumber vines growing at the base of a corn stalk will help the corn stand up to heavy rain or winds. After harvest, the corn stalks provide a natural trellis for these climbing vines. (Vegetable vines do corn stalks an additional service by deterring pesky raccoons—creatures who don’t like traveling through the thick vines.)

Manage insects: Intercropping gives your garden more biodiversity that can help reduce harmful insects and welcome beneficial ones. Plant garlic between your tomato plants to protect them from red spider mites. Plant tomatoes near roses to protect against black spot and near asparagus to protect against the asparagus beetle. (Don’t plant tomatoes near corn because the tomato worm and corn earworm are identical.) Finally, consider planting a sacrificial nasturtium in the opposite corner of your garden to lure black aphids away from your veggies.

These are just a few of the ways intercropping works to make your garden more productive. Incorporate intercropping into your veggie planting strategy, and take advantage of an efficient, natural way to ensure that something new and delicious is popping up in your garden, all season long.

For more tips, sign up for Molbak’s Veggie Growing series—created for Northwest gardeners in partnership with Seattle Tilth. You’ll receive two emails a month during the growing season filled with timely tips for a bountiful harvest. For a free signup, visit www.molbaks.com/veggiegrowing.html.

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